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Tim Hudak, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, holds a press conference in Toronto on Jan. 13, 2014, to talk about his proposed Million Jobs Act. (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Tim Hudak, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, holds a press conference in Toronto on Jan. 13, 2014, to talk about his proposed Million Jobs Act. (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak shies away from union fight in latest proposal Add to ...

Following the bitter disappointment of losing his first election at the helm of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, Tim Hudak told anyone who would listen about the lesson he had learned.

His mistake had been not running as the true small-c conservative he is. Next time, he vowed, he would run on issues closer to his heart rather than posing as a pragmatist. Tim would be Tim.

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Mr. Hudak has since set himself up to make good on that promise. With policy paper after policy paper, he has laid the foundation for a hard-line agenda.

But this week, as he lumped several of his policy proposals into a piece of legislation that he somewhat dubiously promised would create a million new jobs, the PC Leader signalled that he is struggling with just how far he can go. Because his bill is less newsworthy for what is in it – lower taxes, less regulation, “affordable” energy prices – than for what is not.

Of all the ideas he has floated in the past couple of years, the most controversial is to make Ontario the first “right-to-work” province. Banning compulsory union membership, as a slew of states south of the border have done in recent years, has been presented by Mr. Hudak as a way to revive Ontario’s manufacturing sector. It would also prompt an all-out war with organized labour, the prospect of which he has at times appeared to relish.

Now, just months before a likely spring election, Mr. Hudak has put forward an economic agenda and right-to-work is absent from it. The official reason is that he didn’t want to put an obvious deal-breaker into a bill he hopes will get through the province’s minority legislature. But that doesn’t hold water, because there is literally nobody at Queen’s Park who believes there’s a serious chance either the governing Liberals or third-party New Democrats will support this legislation regardless.

A better explanation is that Mr. Hudak has been hearing concern from fellow Tories about running on something so polarizing.

Until recently, he seemed to be sufficiently dug in to resist such push-back. As he and some of his senior advisers point out, labour groups spent millions of dollars last election trying to make sure the Tories didn’t win, and will do likewise again regardless of which policies are on the table.

Now, based on conversations with party insiders, it’s an open question whether right-to-work will make it to the Tories’ platform. There appears to be some doubt about whether the policy can find enough traction with people who aren’t reliable PC supporters to begin with.

To be sure, there are good reasons for the Tories to think twice before going all-in on effectively dismantling unions. Evidence is inconclusive as to whether right-to-work actually helps economic growth. The Liberals could mount a potentially persuasive argument that any extra jobs would be more than offset by lower wages. As even Mr. Hudak has acknowledged previously, private-sector unions have in recent years proven reasonably flexible in working with employers to try to keep jobs in Ontario.

But whatever one thinks of the policy’s merits, whether it makes the prospect of a PC government more enticing or more appalling, there has been something encouraging about Mr. Hudak’s championing of it. Of all the policies he has put on the table, it’s most symbolized his willingness to give Ontarians a real choice by running on something he genuinely believes in, even if it might prove unpopular.

Perhaps there are enough other policies in Mr. Hudak’s arsenal to fill that role, notwithstanding that if he doesn’t actually run on right-to-work he will have to defend himself. But he knows that simply trying to make himself inoffensive – as some within his party wish he would do, based on the premise that the scandal-plagued Liberals will defeat themselves – is a recipe for disaster.

If not right-to-work, the policy that seemingly has most excited him to date, Mr. Hudak will need to figure out in short order which other policy will let him be himself, in the way that he couldn’t or wouldn’t be last time.

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